In the Business of Saving Lives: Mike Arms, President of Helen Woodward Animal Center

Article previously published on NBC Petside in 2012

Mike Arms, President of Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego, CA, is known to be the person responsible for most adoptions in the history of humankind. Through the programs he started such as the annual International Adopt-a-thon and Iams Home 4 the Holidays, he helped 8 million animals find loving homes.


When Mike started out as a young ambitious lad from Kentucky arriving in NYC in 1960s with an accounting degree, he had dreams of making it big in the finance world. He started managing finances at ASPCA, but the stress of his job was getting to him. At the time, the ASPCA was killing over 140,000 innocent animals yearly. Mike decided to quit and run away from animal welfare. But on a fateful day, he got a call about a dog hit by a car in the Bronx.

There were no ambulance drivers available, so he took off on his own to the scene of the accident. There, he found a black and tan shepherd/terrier mix lying helplessly on the street with his back broken. When Mike approached the dog, two men came out of a nearby doorway and told him that he wasn’t allowed to take the dog. The men had made a bet on how long it was going to live. Appalled, Mike told them they were sick and that he was going to bring the dog to the hospital. Just as he bent down to lift the severely injured puppy, the men attacked him with a bottle to the head, a smack of a baseball bat and a knife to his hip and shoulder. Mike was knocked unconscious.

But the bleeding dog crawled to his side and started licking him awake. That’s when Mike made a promise: “If I live through this, I will help animals.” The dog did not survive, but he changed the course of Mike’s life.


“One act of kindness, and he has blessed me with this life,” said Mike during an interview in his office at the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC), a private, non-profit dedicated to saving animal lives. Mike has fulfilled his promise a millions times over, and continues to do so with his leadership, wisdom and keen business skills.

“We are so much like retail. The hours we are open, the customer services, etc.,” Mike said. When Mike Arms became president of HWAC, the first thing he changed was the days the center was open to public for adoptions from 5 to 7 days a week.

“What increases adoptions is marketing. I am living proof of that,” said Mike. When Mike was working at the North Shore Animal League, where he served as Director of Operations for over 20 years and oversaw 400,000 animal adoptions, the organization took out ads in major newspapers, subway cars, buses, and would run these ads seven days a week.

Mike suggests that when shelters and organizations advertise their pets atadoption events, “They need to take in the cutest most mushy faced puppies. Not only will those puppies get adopted, others will also get adopted.”

As for adoption fees, Mike is an advocate for higher fees to raise the perception of value of these animals. Also, higher adoption fees don’t have much of an effect on how many animals get adopted. “We have the highest fees in San Diego, and we do more adoptions,” he said. Referring to the Helen Woodward Animal Center’s adoptable pets, he said, “I want you to come here, and look at the beautiful pets we have and say I love it. I don’t care how much it costs, I have to have it.”


When Mike started out at HWAC, the no-kill center was only taking pets from private surrenders. Mike quickly changed that to pets from rescue organizations. Today, 90% of the pets come from shelters and rescue groups, and pet adoptions have leaped to record levels. Fifteen partnering organizations near HWAC now do 60 adoptions a week.

Within a few months on the job, Arms developed the Home 4 the Holidays adoption program in collaboration with thousands of animal organizations around the world that resulted in over seven million adoptions since 1999.

“If we are putting out 1.3 mil pets with this Holiday drive every year and they are all spayed and neutered, guess who is doing more for the population control than we are?” said Mike.

Helen Woodward Animal Center also provides therapeutic riding programs, equine hospital, pet boarding, education camps for kids, Pet Encounter Therapy, Animeals (pet food donations to families in need) and a small animal hospital. The organization has about hundred foster parents and 1000 volunteers.


Mike said he “had a vision to turn HWAC into an education organization for animal welfare groups from all over the world.” He made that into a reality by creating theAnimal Center Education Services (ACES), which hosts a free three day conference every other month for people all over the world on topics such as marketing, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and retention.  While some rescue organizations compete over whose business practices are best, HWAC shares the best practices they use.

Mike also travels around the globe to assess animal welfare organizations and shelters and  provide guidance on bringing about change that could save more lives. He does this free of charge. “The value of a pet is priceless. I can’t put a price on that. If I am asking for money, I wouldn’t be the person that I am.”

“I could have just been a businessman and be very successful, and what would it have meant? Now, I can say I helped give these beautiful pets a chance of life because one decided to help me one day on the street,” he added.

A resident of Solana Beach, California, Mike Arms is married to Carol and has one daughter, three dogs, and a cat.

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Published by Lavanya

Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and globetrotter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, Fodor’s, Forbes, USA Today and many more in a career spanning ten years. She covers travel, eco-lifestyle, culture, pets, and wildlife conservation.

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